Panama City is a modern metropolis that embraces its rich history. Experience evocative 17th-century architecture, vibrant nightlife, and an up-close look at one of the man-made wonders of the world: the Panama Canal.
Panama City's unique blend of cultures means this capital has a little something for everyone. During your stay, be prepared to discover a historic district that brings to mind New Orleans' French Quarter, a thriving restaurant scene that rivals Miami, and some of the best tropical climates in Central America.
The region is also filled with sightseeing experiences. You can visit the Panama Canal Zone for an in-depth look at the intricate system of locks that operates the canal, or take a day trip to a nearby national park to encounter some of the most diverse wildlife on the planet.
A trip to Panama City, even if it's only for a few days, is unforgettable and will give you a new appreciation for this unique part of the world.
Even if you're only staying in Panama City for a short time, pencil in a few hours to take a walking tour of the town's old quarter, Casco Viejo. You'll be richly rewarded by some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in Central America, including homes, churches, and plazas that were built after Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 17th century.
Since the "big ditch" was completed in 1914, visitors have flocked to Panama City to view this 48-mile engineering wonder. The canal is clearly visible from several places within the city, but, if you want to learn more about the history and operation of the canal, plan a day trip to the Miraflores Visitor Center. The Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum, located on the Plaza de la Independencia, has a fine collection of artifacts and an observation deck where you can get splendid views of the canal.
Panamanians love their restaurants, and eating out is a great and inexpensive way to experience local culture. You can get a gourmet meal for around B/30 at modern restaurants like La Posta just off the Calle Uruguay, or experience Spanish chef Manolo Madueño's postmodern cuisine at Manolo Caracol on Avenida Central.
Panama City is surrounded by some of the densest rainforests in Central America. There are plenty of ways to visit the jungle, from kid-friendly attractions like Monkey Island to the Soberania National Park, which offers the best bird watching in the Americas. Another great day trip is the Biomuseo on the Amador Causeway. This Frank Gehry-designed museum houses exhibits on biodiversity and wildlife that are curated by the Smithsonian and the University of Panama.
Panama City has a warm, temperate climate throughout the year, which makes it a delight to spend time outdoors. Take an evening stroll along the newly remodeled Avenida Balboa, enjoy a morning espresso at one of the city's many outdoor cafes, or simply lounge by your hotel's pool with a cocktail and a good book.
Panama's most famed sight is this 48-mile long human made canal, which connects Atlantic and Pacific. Take a boat ride on the waters and let the world shrink as you float on the border between two vast oceans. On shore, the Miraflores Locks offer viewing platforms to enjoy the coming and going of international ships. There, tourists will also find a visitor center chock-full of information about the history of this feat of engineering.
The historic district of Casco Viejo is brimming with historical jewels. Walk the neighborhood to discover the plethora of churches, monasteries and marketplaces, one and all the epitome of an age-old past. The entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and lives up to that title fiercely, from atmospheric ruins to well-preserved colonial architecture. Highlights include the National Theater and National Palace, as well as the Compañía de Jesús Church and the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Far from the historical quarters of Panama City, the BioMuseo is the icon of contemporary Panama. Designed by the world famous Frank Gehry, this colorful museum of natural sciences stands out boldly on the waterside. The focus is entirely a national one, highlighting the unique positioning of the country in Central America, along with its most beloved flora and fauna. The location by the Amador Causeway is fitting, leading out to marine islands in Panama Bay.
In the suburbs of Panama City as we know it today, tourists will find the remains of the original 15th-century colonial settlement - one of the first ever established on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. The archaeological site transports visitors back to the Conquista. The crumbling ruins of the Old Panama Cathedral stand tallest among the foundations of other community buildings, and the constructions are well preserved enough to imagine the lively history that played out here.
This modern stretch of Panama City sparkles new in contrast to the historical buildings for which the metropolis is best known, and it's a must-see. Just a couple of miles long, the high-class road is one of the most expensive in the world and filled with shops and bars for hours of entertainment. The views as you walk up and down the avenue are also unforgettable, with skyscrapers shooting up in every direction, and the waters of Panama Bay right at your feet.
The average year-round temperature is 81 degrees Fahrenheit. The busiest time of year is during the dry season from mid-December to mid-April, but it is also the most crowded, with some hotels and restaurants charging double rates. If you visit from May through November, you'll find it quieter and much more affordable, but be sure to bring rain gear because heavy thunderstorms can pop up at any minute.
Most international visitors to Panama City will arrive at Tocumen International Airport (PTY), which is about 26 miles northeast of the city center. United Airlines, Delta Airlines, and American Airlines offer flights to Panama City from several major US airports. The fastest and easiest way to get into town from the airport is to book ahead for a shuttle service or hail a taxi outside the airport's main entrance. The cost of a taxi to downtown Panama City is B/30. There is a public bus service, but it only accepts prepaid fare cards, which aren't sold at the airport.
The Panama Canal Railway operates a daily commuter train service from Colón to Panama City. The train leaves Panama City in mid-morning and returns to the capital in the late afternoon.
The main road into Panama City is Corredor Sur, a modern four-lane highway. You have to pay a toll before entering or exiting the highway. Most rental car companies will sell you a prepaid electronic ticket to Corredor Sur, or you can purchase one at a tollbooth before entering the highway - just be sure to get into a line marked "Recarga."
Panama City's main bus terminal is one of the major hubs in Central America. The terminal is about a five-minute walk from Tocumen International Airport. While there, you can book an international bus to Costa Rica and Nicaragua or get your prepaid fare card for the Panama City Metrobus line.
You can book a good-quality hotel room in Panama City with air conditioning, WiFi, and a swimming pool for around B/120 per night. If you are looking for the latest in luxury, make reservations at the Hilton Panama on the Avenida Balboa for stunning oceanfront views and a rooftop pool. For a more intimate experience, stay at the American Trade Hotel in Casco Viejo. This newly refurbished Art Deco building features custom-made wood furnishings, a lovely interior courtyard, and a library.
Casco Viejo - this historic quarter in Panama City's southeast corner is filled with centuries-old plazas, churches, and homes. A stroll along its brick-lined streets reveals 17th-century Spanish colonial and neoclassical architecture mixed with trendy restaurants and boutique shopping. Movie fans will want to keep an eye out for locations used in the James Bond film "Quantum of Solace", while the San Jose Church on Calle 8 is home to a relic from a real-life adventure: the church's famous gold altar was saved from vandalism during pirate Henry Morgan's 1671 raid by pious citizens, who covered the altar with mud and transported it several miles.
Cerro Ancón - this Western district is historically tied to the Panama Canal. Cerro Ancón has many tourist attractions, including the Museum of Contemporary Art and Mi Pueblito, a historic village that recreates the culture of Panama's indigenous people.
Downtown Panama City - gleaming skyscrapers, luxury hotels, and gourmet restaurants all feature in the Area Bancaria or financial district. There is also a trendy shopping strip along the newly refurbished Avenida Balboa.
Panama City's subway system opened in 2014. The Metro lines are clean, safe, and affordable with a prepaid fare card costing B/2. However, the Metro lines do not run near major tourist areas, which can make navigating the city by rail inconvenient. Buses are also a cheap, easy way to get around. You can ride on the city-run Metrobuses by purchasing a prepaid fare card for B/2 or ride several privately owned buses known as "red devils" for around B/0.25 per trip.
There is an abundance of taxis in Panama City. The government-set rates are between B/1 and B/5, depending on where you want to go.
Driving is not recommended in Panama City because of the congested traffic, confusing road signs, and limited parking. However, Tocumen International Airport has car rentals from companies like Thrifty and Alamo. The average cost is around B/25 per day, but the process can be confusing and time-consuming, especially if you don't speak Spanish.
If you are looking for a tropical vacation with some retail therapy, Panama City is the place for you. The capital has six major malls, boutique shopping along the Avenida Balboa, and indigenous craft stores in Casco Viejo and Cerro Ancón. Albrook Mall, which has a cinema, arcade, and bowling alley, makes a great stop for a family vacation, while the gift shop at Mi Pueblito sells handmade indigenous crafts.
Panama City has two major grocery store chains, Riba Smith and El Rey, that sell major US brands as well as health food, seasonal items, and spirits. The average prices are comparable with major US grocery stores, with milk costing B/5.73 per gallon and eggs costing B/1.99 per dozen. Super 99 is a discount chain where you can purchase bathing items and toiletries at reasonable prices. There is also an increasing number of specialty food stores, such as Grand Deli Gourmet, which sells upscale meats, cheeses, and wine, and Super Kosher for Jewish delicacies.
Panamanians love their restaurants, which makes eating out in the capital surprisingly inexpensive. Beef tenderloin with a sweet potato tamale and guava sauce at The Dining Room at American Trade Hotel only costs around B/30, and you can get an affordable Italian meal for the whole family at Van Gogh in the Via Veneto Casino. There are also plenty of cheap eats like the popular chain Doraditos Asados and the Chinese fast-food joint Don Lee.